Toward a Progressive Strategy on North Korea

The Center for American Progress recently convened a group of experts to propose a progressive strategy for dealing with U.S. policy toward North Korea. As summarized below, the group recommends moving beyond the Bush administration's current approach by starting a bilateral process within the Six-Party framework while adding broad reforms to the existing security agenda. At a time when U.S. policy towards North Korea commands relatively little focus, the regime's nuclear program continues to move forward at full speed. It is important for progressives to speak with a unified and urgent voice on this issue. Please send suggestions and comments to [email protected].

Significant progress this year through the Six-Party Talks is unlikely. The United States and North Korea may have a perverse commonality of interest in continuing to tread water through this U.S. election year. For the Bush administration, the talks provide political cover while keeping policy options open. For North Korea, appearing to cooperate enables the regime to continue its nuclear and missile programs, while staving off economic pressure. However, U.S. national security is jeopardized by allowing the issue to stall while North Korea continues to develop its weapons programs. In fact, a revised U.S. estimate expected next month could raise the number of nuclear weapons suspected in the regime's possession from two to eight or higher.

Rather than writing off what the Bush administration has begun, progressives should work to broaden, strengthen and refine the approach to North Korea. The inherent tension between the North Korean regime's desire for international assistance and its unwillingness to yield control or lift the veil of secrecy was evident in its response to last week's tragic train disaster. Still, the regime's continued desire for U.S. and international engagement means that an opportunity for progress remains. The Six-Party structure is valuable, but incomplete without complementary direct talks between the United States and North Korea. More important, the administration has insisted on nuclear concessions up front, while a phased and comprehensive reform vision is more likely to succeed. North Korea rejects the administration's stance, effectively stalling the process.

  • In an effort to move beyond the current stalemate, the United States could promote and facilitate a broader reform agenda in addition to denuclearization.

Reforms and the complementary incentives offered in exchange could make the nuclear problem easier to resolve by building trust through the resolution of less contentious issues. A framework of reforms and incentives may at least enable the government of Kim Jong-Il to see an alternate route to its survival besides weapons of mass destruction. While the current regime is difficult and unpredictable, North Korea could act more rationally if presented with a road map that outlines intermediate steps and leads to an endgame where its survival is not at stake. Broader reforms could include:

• Economic reforms that create opportunities for investment, particularly from South Korea;
• Confidence-building measures regarding reductions in conventional weapons;
• Human rights improvements and a verifiable commitment to shift resources from regime survival to what is good for the North Korean people;
• International monitoring of food assistance to ensure its proper delivery to the civilian population; and
• Resolution of issues related to state-sponsored terrorism, including further action regarding Japanese abductees.

  • Anything offered to North Korea must have a quid pro quo.

The start of a reform process must include a North Korean commitment to address U.S. and international concerns about its nuclear and missile programs. The United States should insist on complete and verifiable elimination of North Korea's nuclear capability, but North Korea could begin with a freeze of its nuclear programs (explicitly including highly enriched uranium) supported by a verification mechanism and intrusive inspections. It could then phase out its nuclear activities over a number of years while simultaneously making other reforms. Dealing with this issue constructively is not a "reward" to North Korea for its proliferation, but rather a means to achieve a U.S. national security imperative.

  • Incentives for action and consequences for intransigence must be spelled out and backed by all parties.

The United States should spell out what benefits the North Koreans would receive should they make reforms and address international security concerns. The United States should also make very clear that North Korea will face heavy consequences if it turns down such a reasonable approach and insists on retaining its nuclear weapons capability. It is important to have backing on this point from the other four partners in the Six-Party Talks, but it is unlikely the partners will agree to coercive measures in the absence of a genuine U.S. attempt to arrive at a reasonable negotiated solution. A progressive approach that includes a broader reform agenda in addition to denuclearization is likely to meet with support from the partners, especially South Korea. Bilateral talks are a key to progress, but should be part of the comprehensive multilateral framework.

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